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Tang Dynasty: Achievements, Inventions & Technology

Instructor: Jeffery Keller

Jeff has taught US and World History at the high school and college levels for nearly ten years and has a master's degree in history.

From 618-907 CE a powerful dynasty known as the Tang ruled over a unified China, during a period widely seen as the pinnacle of Chinese civilization. In this lesson, you will learn about the achievements, innovations, and technology of the Tang dynasty of China.

Origins of the Tang

There are many ways that rulers come to power. Some rulers inherit their authority from their father. Some win power through wars. Others bribe their way into power. For Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang dynasty, the rise to power was not easy. Li Yuan had been a faithful servant of the Sui dynasty, the first dynasty to rule over a unified China in nearly 300 years. The human and financial toll of reunifying China ultimately proved unsustainable, and the peasants revolted. Amidst the coup or armed military takeover, Li Yuan managed to seize power, put down the riot, and founded a new dynasty. Li Yuan and his new dynasty would build on the achievements of the Sui and, in doing so, oversee a golden age of achievement.

Emperor Gaozu founded the Tang Dynasty
Emperor Gaozu, Founder of the Tang Dynasty

An Emphasis on Education

Like most new rulers Li Yuan, later renamed Gaozu, and his new dynasty had to quickly figure out how to rule. It's one thing to overthrow a previous ruler, but it is something else to administer the country! The Tang dynasty soon realize they could build on the changes that the Sui dynasty had brought about. Especially important was the reliance on a new class of bureaucrats. The Sui had relied on a system of tests known as civil service exams to test the abilities of potential government workers. The Tang strengthened this system, adding new positions and placing an increased emphasis on testing the examinee's knowledge of Confucianism, which was a philosophy in China that emphasized education, tradition, and family values. These tests were similar to a modern-day doctoral exam. Those who passed the highest level were given the title of tinshi. Although this opened the door to a new and growing middle class, many government posts were still held by traditional aristocratic families. Still, these changes did weaken the power of the aristocracy and increase the size and influence of the middle class.

A growing economy

The Tang dynasty's increasing reliance on educated elites greatly expanded the number of individuals who sought higher education. This, in turn, led to more schools. More schools and more educated people helped increase the standard of living for individuals throughout China. This chain reaction ultimately led to a growth in a desire for outside goods. During the Tang dynasty, merchants flocked from across Asia and the Middle East to sell their goods. This could especially be seen in the capital city of Changan, which was probably the world's most wealthy city at that time. Just as is the case in cities today, Changan became a destination not just for thousands of merchants from across the world, but also for scholars and students, all bringing new ideas.

Buddhism Grows in Influence

One of the biggest cultural changes in China during this time was the growth of Buddhism. In 629 CE a monk named Xuanzang left China and ventured to India following the trade routes that connected these two territories. There, he studied under numerous Buddhist gurus, deepening his knowledge and appreciation for the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. After 16 years of studies, Xuanzang returned to China bringing with him stories of his travels and numerous religious texts. Xuanzang quickly became a celebrity in China, and interest in his stories and teachings helped Buddhism become a major religion in China.

Cultural Innovations

Merchants and religious scholars were not the only ones who flourished in the golden age of the Tang dynasty. Writers also found new prestige in this period. Writers covered countless pages with lines of poetry. Poetry was so vital to Tang society that it was part of the civil service exam. Thousands of poets wrote nearly 50,000 poems during the Tang dynasty. The most famous collection, the aptly titled 300 Tang Poems, was compiled by later dynasties but continues to be studied by Chinese school children today. Other writers compiled encyclopedias to help prepare students for the civil service exam.

Technology

The Tang made other innovations, particularly in printing. Early innovations in the Sui dynasty had resulted in the creation of rudimentary printing technology, but the Tang perfected woodblock printing, a technique whereby a page was carved into a block of wood and then stamped onto a page. The creation of the 'stamp' was a time-consuming process. Although it did result in the widespread publication of books and newspapers during the late Tang dynasty, these were still luxury items for most individuals.

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